With an increasing number of SA farmers opting to use their own farm firefighting units when combating bushfires, many are calling for better communication and cohesion between Country Fire Service brigade members, and those operating FFUs, to lead to a more effective firefighting effort overall.
Despite their importance, FFUs were not included in the state government's initial action plan made in response to the recently-released independent review of SA's 2019-20 bushfire season, which suggested FFU operators undertake additional training, with the CFS also needing to incorporate FFUs into CFS incident management systems.
Former Emergency Services Minister Corey Wingard, who held the position during the 2019-20 bushfire season, and for the duration of the review's compilation and release, said recommendations related to FFUs would be addressed in a more comprehensive state government response to be delivered by the end of September.
"FFUs are important to our state's firefighting capability - they're often first on the scene of a bushfire and they provide vital support in remote locations," he said.
As well as ensuring the effectiveness of FFUs could be maximised to best help overall firefighting efforts, Mr Wingard said an emphasis needed to be placed on ensuring the safety of those operating them.
In response to Stock Journal questions, a statement from the CFS has acknowledged the value of FFUs as part of farm firefighting efforts, and says it will wait for the state government's September response before implementing any official changes into its systems.
We all want the same outcome, how we get there is the issue.
CFS Volunteers Association vice-president David Lindner said the growing popularity of FFUs had led to CFS volunteer numbers "taking a hit" in the past few years, with many farmers choosing to operate their own FFU instead of joining local CFS brigades.
"Some of those very small rural brigades in particular are losing that operational capacity because FFUs are being favoured," he said.
Mr Lindner said with many farm enterprises increasing in size, many individuals were choosing to invest in equipment for their own use, rather than supplying equipment for local CFS brigades.
He also said the CFS was losing valuable local knowledge in regards to terrain, and which direction fires were likely to travel, due to dwindling numbers of locals being involved.
"Many farmers are operating their own FFUs, but if you had those people operating within brigades, brigades could do a lot of pre-planning, and look at risks and factors, but by not having those numbers in the brigades, all of that doesn't happen," he said.
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Mr Lindner said smaller brigade numbers had also meant there had been instances during the summer bushfires where one or two brigade members were at stations ready to take off in trucks, but could not do so due to CFS standard operational procedures requiring a minimum crew of four people to be travelling in a six-seater fire truck.
While FFU popularity has led to problems for the CFS, Mr Lindner acknowledged the effectiveness of FFUs when fighting fires, and said it was vital for everyone to work together during blazes, starting with those operating FFUs contacting CFS on arrival at a scene.
"Once those operating FFUs are on the fireground, under legislation they are required to abide by CFS practice, because the CFS is managing the situation, and we need to know who is there if something goes wrong," he said.
"We have the legislation now for CFS members to kick someone off fireground if they are deemed unsafe, but I don't know if we'd do it, we want to have good relationships with people and an argument on the fireground doesn't achieve anything."
Mr Lindner said those operating FFUs needed to place trust in CFS brigade members leading firefighting efforts, but said in some instances, trust was still lacking.
We're growing between two and four times the amount of dry matter we used to, our fire risk has gone through the roof, and so FFUs need to be upgraded at the same time.
"The lack of trust often stems from those who don't accept the bureaucratic system of management, but they need to realise that we have all these procedures in order to make sure everybody is safe, so we can work together to achieve the outcome," he said.
"We all want the same outcome, how we get there is the issue."
Mr Lindner said a voluntary code of practice for those operating FFUs was needed, to ensure people were best placed to protect themselves and minimise risk.
While Mr Lindner suggested the voluntary code be put together by the state government, Mallala farmer John Lush - whose property was affected in the 2015 Pinery fire - said Agricultural Bureaus were best-placed to develop the protocol.
Mr Lush said the protocol needed to create minimum standards for aspects such as water volume, pump capacity, communication requirements and personal protective equipment.
"Ag Bureaus are active groups in farming communities," he said.
"I think if we had a voluntary code for FFUs, developed by the farmers themselves, farmers would be more likely to comply because they had some ownership of it.
"The voluntary code of practice for stopping harvesting on fire danger days has worked really well.
"If someone doesn't knock off during a day when they should, they get told off by other farmers, and I think a similar result could happen with a voluntary code for use of FFUs."
Mr Lush has an ex-army fire unit that he used when fighting fires on his property in 2015.
He said many people in the area had bought or upgraded FFUs in the past five years, which he deemed necessary in the face of increasing amounts of fuel sources.
"We're growing between two and four times the amount of dry matter we used to, our fire risk has gone through the roof, and so FFUs need to be upgraded at the same time," he said.
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Kingston SE farmer and recently-appointed Taratap CFS Brigade captain Alex Ratcliff owns a FFU, but was working with the CFS on December 30 when the Keilira fire raced through his property, burning 730 hectares of his 6000ha property.
Mr Ratcliff said within half an hour of fighting the blaze on his property, about 10 FFUs operated by neighbours had also joined in the firefighting effort, helping to put out spot fires.
"The FFUs are great for putting out embers that come out past fire breaks, the embers really aren't big enough that the CFS trucks need to get to them," he said.
Mr Ratcliff is calling for the inclusion of PPE standards in a code of practice surrounding FFU use.
"The paint on one of our firetrucks peeled off when it was working along the firefront, the temperature was just that hot, so people using FFUs really need to make sure they're wearing PPE," he said.
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